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E00386: Gregory of Tours, in his Glory of the Martyrs (11), narrates how during the beheading of *John the Baptist (S00020) a woman from Gaul collected his blood and later placed it in the altar of the church of John the Baptist in Bazas (south-west Gaul). Written in Latin in Tours (north-west Gaul), 580/594.

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posted on 2015-04-14, 00:00 authored by dlambert
Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs 11

Iohannes vero baptista astu Herodis per Herodiaden, uxorem fratris, in carcere conligatur. Tunc temporis a Galliis matrona quaedam Hierusolymis abierat pro devotione, tantum ut Domini et Salvatoris nostri praesentiam mereretur. Audivit autem, quod beatus Iohannes decollaretur; cursu illuc rapido tendit, datisque muneribus, supplicat percussori, ut eam sanguinem defluentem collegere permitteret non arceri. Illo autem percutiente, matrona concam argenteam praeparat, truncatumque martyris caput, cruorem devota suscepit; quam diligenter in ampullam positum, patriae detulit et apud Vasatensem urbem, aedificata in eius honore eclesia, in sancto altare collocavit.

'John the Baptist was in fact kept in prison because [king] Herod was tricked by Herodias, his brother's wife. At that time a woman had departed from Gaul for Jerusalem in the hope that she might deserve [to enjoy] the presence of our Lord and Saviour. But she heard that the blessed John was to be beheaded. Quickly she went there, and with gifts she begged the executioner that he not deny her permission to collect the dripping blood. As the executioner struck, the woman held ready a silver vessel and piously collected some blood after the head of the martyr had been cut off. After carefully storing the blood in a flask, she brought it to her homeland. Once the church had been constructed in his honour at Bazas, she placed the flask in the holy altar.'

Text: Krusch 1969, 45. Translation: Van Dam 2004, 13, lightly modified.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

John the Baptist : S00020

Saint Name in Source

Iohannes baptista

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Collections of miracles Literary - Hagiographical - Other saint-related texts


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Gaul and Frankish kingdoms

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Tours Tours Tours Toronica urbs Prisciniacensim vicus Pressigny Turonorum civitas Ceratensis vicus Céré

Major author/Major anonymous work

Gregory of Tours

Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives


Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - blood Discovering, finding, invention and gathering of relics Transfer/presence of relics from distant countries Transfer, translation and deposition of relics Construction of cult building to contain relics

Cult Activities - Cult Related Objects

Ampullae, flasks, etc.


Gregory, bishop of Tours from 573 until his death (probably in 594), was the most prolific hagiographer of all Late Antiquity. He wrote four books on the miracles of Martin of Tours, one on those of Julian of Brioude, and two on the miracles of other saints (the Glory of the Martyrs and Glory of the Confessors), as well as a collection of twenty short Lives of sixth-century Gallic saints (the Life of the Fathers). He also included a mass of material on saints in his long and detailed Histories, and produced two independent short works: a Latin version of the Acts of Andrew and a Latin translation of the story of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Internal references to datable events and to other work by Gregory, suggest that he wrote the greater part of his Glory of the Martyrs between 585 and 588, though there is one chapter (ch. 82), long before the end of the book, that describes an event that is most readily dated to 590. It is in fact likely that Gregory was collecting and recording these stories throughout his life, and, fortunately for our purposes, precise dating is not of great importance, since his views on the role of saints and the correct ways to venerate them do not seem to have changed during his writing life. The work was probably never fully completed and polished: the version we have closes with four very disparate chapters, including one (105) about the divine punishment of an avaricious woman that bears no obvious connection to the overall theme of the book. (For discussions of the dating, see Van Dam 2004, xi-xii; Shaw 2015, 104-105, 111.) In his preface, Gregory states that his aim in the work is 'to publicise some of the miracles of the saints that have until now been hidden' (aliqua de sanctorum miraculis, quae actenus latuerunt, pandere), so, as in his Glory of the Confessors, his focus is not on the lives of the saints, nor on the details of their martyrdoms, but on miracles they have effected, particularly through their relics. Miracles are recorded from many places; but unsurprisingly the largest number is from Gaul. The book opens, rather curiously, with a sizeable number of miracles and relics of Jesus and his mother Mary, neither of them conventional 'martyrs'. The explanation for this must be that Gregory's interest was really much more in relics and miracles in general than in martyrs specifically. Many of the Gallic saints he included are somewhat obscure, but outside Gaul he concentrates for the most part on major saints; towards the end of the book, however, he slips in a couple of lesser Syrian saints, probably because they had interesting specialisms: Phokas and Domitios, with, respectively, particular skills at curing snake bites and sciatica. In the case of the non-Gallic saints, it is not always clear whether they were attracting active cult in Gaul – Phokas and Domitios, for instance, almost certainly didn't. It is only when Gregory tells us of a church dedication or relic that we can be certain that the saint concerned had serious cult in Gaul: in the case of the martyrs of Rome, for instance, this is true of Clement and Laurence, but not of Chrysanthus and Daria, Pancratius, and John I. Although each section contains extraneous material, the work can be broken down very roughly into the following sections:    *Chapters 1-7: Miracles and relics of Jesus (with some of Mary), including three chapters (5-7) on relics of the Passion. (For the most part, these chapters are not covered in our database.)    *Chapters 8-19: Miracles and relics of Mary and John the Baptist.    *Chapters 20-25: Miraculous images of Jesus, and a spring associated with Easter.    *Chapters 23-34: Miracles and relics of the Apostles and Stephen (i.e. New Testament saints).    *Chapters 35-41: Miracles and relics of the post-apostolic martyrs of Rome.    *Chapters 42-46: And of northern Italy.    *Chapters 47-77: And of Gaul (in no obvious order, except that the first three chapters are occupied by early martyrs). This is the longest section of the book.    *Chapters 78-87: Very miscellaneous, with only marginal references to saints: three anti-Arian stories (79-81); two stories regarding relics of Gregory's (82-83); four stories of the punishment of impure people (84-87).    *Chapters 88-102: Miracles and relics of martyrs of Spain, Africa (just one, Cyprian of Carthage), and the East, in that order.    *Chapters 103-106: Miscellaneous. But tight structuring was never a great concern of Gregory's, so within this broad framework, he often wanders off his main theme. For instance, a clutch of miracle stories relating to John the Baptist (chs. 11-13) lead Gregory into a general discussion of the River Jordan (ch. 16), which then leads him to discuss some springs near Jericho (ch. 17), linked to the preceding chapter by the common theme of 'miraculous waters in the Holy Land', but with no connection to any martyr. Similarly, a miracle story involving relics of St Andrew and the punishment of an Arian count (ch. 78) leads Gregory into three stories against Arians with no relation to saints. These digressions did not bother Gregory and are part of the charm of his work. Gregory very seldom tells us about his sources, which for the most part were certainly oral; he had a wide circle of acquaintances within the Gallic church, and also met and collected stories from travellers from abroad, including (if the source is to be believed) a man who had travelled to India (ch. 31). But Gregory also used a range of written texts, including Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History (chs. 20 and 48), the poems of Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, and Venantius Fortunatus, and a substantial number of Martyrdoms (Van Dam 2004, xiv-xvi). Because many of his stories are set abroad, Glory of the Martyrs is less informative about cult practices than Glory of the Confessors, with its very local and very Gallic focus, but it is still a gold-mine of information. To take just two examples: the story of Benignus of Dijon is a remarkably rich and detailed account of the discovery and enhancement of a previously unknown martyr (ch. 50), while that of Patroclus of Troyes shows the importance of a written Martyrdom, and the degree of scepticism that might greet a new one (ch. 63). There is a good general discussion of Glory of the Martyrs in Van Dam 2004, ix-xxiii, and of Gregory's hagiography more widely in Shaw 2015. (Bryan Ward-Perkins)


For an overview of the Glory of the Martyrs see E00367. This highly interesting passage is obviously legendary (indeed its implied chronology of the conversion of Gaul runs contrary to Gregory's own view elsewhere), and projects the cultic customs of the times of Gregory back to the 1st century, even down to the detail of an altar and church requiring the relics of a saint. It should therefore be interpreted as Gregory's vision of the early Christian cult of saints and relics. The cathedral of John the Baptist at Bazas in Aquitaine certainly did not date from the 1st century. It existed during the Visigothic ravages in the 5th century, but its exact construction date remains unknown (Vieillard-Troiekouroff 1976, 50-51). Gregory's story shows that it laid claim to relics of the Baptist within its altar - here we have a case where the dedication of the church, and its primary relics, coincided, which was by no means necessarily the case in the 6th century. Strikingly Gregory casts a woman in the role of devout pilgrim getting access to the place of the execution of John the Baptist and collecting his blood. It fits very well in the usual narrative scheme of both early and later martyrdom accounts where women are often in charge of the burial of the martyrs' bodies, collecting their clothes, taking care of their relics, etc. It also corresponds well with the figure of a late antique female pilgrim to the Holy Land (see e.g. E00387). The next chapter (12) in Glory of the Confessors describes miracles in Bazas - its salvation from siege by the Huns after visions of a procession of men and a miraculous fire, and the appearance of three miraculous gems which then fused into one, thereby proving the absolute equality and unity of the Trinity. But Gregory does not associate these miracles with the relics of John or any other saint, so they have not been given a separate entry in our database: the second miracle, of the gems, is indeed a classic Gregory digression attacking Arian beliefs.


Edition: Krusch, B., Liber in gloria martyrum, in: Gregorii Turonensis Opera. 2: Miracula et opera minora (Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Scriptores rerum Merovingicarum 1.2; 2nd ed.; Hannover, 1969). Translation: Van Dam, R., Gregory of Tours, Glory of the Martyrs (Translated Texts for Historians 4; 2nd ed., Liverpool, 2004). Further reading: Shaw, R., "Chronology, Composition, and Authorial Conception in the Miracula", in: A.C. Murray (ed.), A Companion to Gregory of Tours (Leiden-Boston 2015), 102-140. Vieillard-Troiekouroff, M., Les monuments religieux de la Gaule d'après les œuvres de Grégoire de Tours (Paris, 1976).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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